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The best songs: The Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen

The Ghost of Tom Joad is a fantastic and often overlooked song by Bruce Springsteen. It is the title track on his album from 1995. The album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, has a focus on storytelling. It is largely accoustic and the songs are stories of people in difficulties and struggles. The influence of Guthrie and Dylan is clear.

Recorded sometime April–June 1995 at Thrill Hill West (Bruce’s Los Angeles home studio). Springsteen handles guitar and vocals and his 4-man backing band on this recording is Danny Federici (keyboards), Garry Tallent (bass), Marty Rifkin (pedal steel, dobro) and Gary Mallaber (drums). (from Brucebase)

The character Tom Joad is the lead character in John Steinbeck’s classic 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, is mentioned in the title and narrative. Near the end of the story, Tom makes his famous “I’ll be there” speech, which is also noted in the lyrics.

The idea is that the ghost of Tom Joad, the spirit of working together as a community, will prevail in times of great injustice and depression. I think it means that our times are mirror images of past times, the ghost of the depression in the late twenties to the early forties.

The song also takes inspiration from The Ballad of Tom Joad by Woody Guthrie and by the John Ford film The Grapes of Wrath.

Another inspiration is this speech by George Bush in 1990:

“Until now, the world we’ve known has been a world divided – a world of barbed wire and concrete block, conflict and cold war. Now, we can see a new world coming into view. A world in which there is the very real prospect of a new world order. In the words of Winston Churchill, a ‘world order’ in which ‘the principles of justice and fair play … protect the weak against the strong …’ “

Springsteen was clearly ironically quoting Bush’s speech when he wrote the line, “Welcome to the new world order” in the first verse.

So it’s a song with several origins and a very political song.
It was originally done as a sombre protest/folk song by Springsteen but has later been done in a radically louder arrangement by Rage Against the Machine.

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

Bruce Springsteen  has also performed the song in various arrangements, solo in very quiet shows and as a more hard and up-tempo rock song.

Here’s the fabulous album version from 1995:

He pulls prayer book out of his sleeping bag
Preacher lights up a butt and takes a drag
Waitin’ for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last
In a cardboard box ‘neath the underpass
Got a one-way ticket to the promised land
You got a hole in your belly and gun in your hand
Sleeping on a pillow of solid rock
Bathin’ in the city aqueduct

The highway is alive tonight
But where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Waitin’ on the ghost of Tom Joad

The great cover version by Rage Against The Machine:

Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy
Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I’ll be there
Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin’ hand
Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ downhere in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad

These two great version resulted in a fantastic collaboration, Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street band with Tom Morello from Rage Against The Machine . There are several great guitarsolos in the song,  first Springsteen and Morello weaves their solos and plays great off each other, then Tom Morello really shines on a unbelievable solo that starts at 5:50 into the song, it must be seen to be believed!

Madison Square Garden, New York City, October 2009:

It is a significant song from an important album.

“He is a guy who lives with his eyes open”

- Dave March

“My memory of my father trying to find work, what that does to you, and how that affects your image of your manhood, as a provider. The loss of that role is devastating. I wrote coming from that spot, the spot of disaffection, of loners, outsiders. But not outlaws. It’s about people trying to find their way in, but somebody won’t let them in. That pretty much obsesses me to this day, and probably will the rest of my life”

- Bruce Springsteen

From the documentary The People Speak:

- Hallgeir

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